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Fall Camp Preview: Defense

With the USC Trojans set to hit the field this Friday to kick off 2019 fall camp, today we take a look at what we know, and what we think, position by position on, the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line

What we know: It wasn’t good enough last season. Forget the fact that USC’s 164.4 rushing yards per game allowed ranked ninth in the conference, or that its 29 sacks tied for fifth, or that the 27 points per game allowed was only good for eighth. For all the good plays the defensive line provided, and there were enough of those, the only number that matters is 289. As in, the 289 rushing yards allowed to UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley (of the 313 total the Bruins piled up). That can’t happen.

The good news is that this unit returns some true talent at the top of the depth chart, and intriguing pieces all over the two-deep. Jay Tufele gets things started up front, as he is coming off an All-Pac-12 second team season, with 23 tackles, three sacks, a blocked field goal, and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.

Tufele will be joined on the line by nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and defensive end Christian Rector, who will be able to stick at defensive end this season, rather than bounce around to outside linebacker/predator. Brandon Pili will likely come off the bench in the interior, but has the talent to be a starter.

Behind those top four is where things start to get interesting and names need to emerge. Junior college transfer Caleb Tremblay played in three games last season before a knee injury forced him to the sideline and kept him out the entire spring. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has talked about Tremblay’s ability to get to the quarterback from the interior of the defensive line, so that is something worth monitoring and something that could greatly add to the production up front.

Just as things were expected from Tremblay last season, fellow junior college transfer Nick Figueroa will be thrown into the mix this fall. An early enrollee, Figueroa showed the ability to line up both inside and outside this past spring.

In addition to Tremblay and Figueroa, Jacob Lichtenstein will be another contributor this season, as he started two games and had 15 tackles last season. He looked much-improved this past spring.

Redshirt junior Connor Murphy is another defensive lineman who appeared to take a step forward this past spring. He could offer some versatility as he lined up at defensive end and also had a practice where he moved inside and showed very well at defensive tackle.

Defensive tackle Trevor Trout might be the most intriguing defensive lineman of fall camp, as the redshirt freshman has the talent to slide into the rotation, but missed all of spring ball with a bicep injury. If he can get things going and put together a nice camp, that would be a big addition to the depth up front.

And of the two true freshmen, defensive tackle De’jon Benton looks ticketed for a redshirt season, while defensive end Drake Jackson showed enough this past spring to realistically expect All-Pac-12 Freshman First-Team honors, and potentially more this year. He was that good that quickly.

What we think: Outside of offensive playcalling, there won’t be a position group or entity that sees an increase in effectiveness more than the defensive line from last year to this year. The group has taken to new position coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and the quick jump in ability, technique, and mentality they had this past spring was palpable.

It’s tough to think that just one off-season is enough time to go from those 289 rushing yards allowed to the conference’s most dominant defensive line, but this group looks poised to give that a run. There is terrific talent up top and the versatility to show everything from just two all the way up to five down linemen.

Kauha’aha’a’s insistence on getting up the field and taking away some of the reading and guesswork that slowed the line last season has given this group a sense of confidence that was evident when speaking with them.

Any sense of impending improvement following a five-win season comes with a healthy dose of “prove it,” but it feels like this group is ready to do just that.

Linebackers

What we know: The seniors have settled in at middle linebacker, as John Houston and Jordan Iosefa will continue to rotate at Mike linebacker in order to put the calls and organizational responsibility in the hands of experienced veterans. Houston finished last season with 67 tackles (second on the team), five deflections and a forced fumble, despite missing the Notre Dame game. Iosefa is back to his more natural position after playing outside last year, where he had 38 tackles and two sacks.

Palaie Gaoteote will be let loose this season at Will linebacker, backed up by Kana’i Mauga and Juliano Falaniko. And there are some fresh faces expected to contribute mightily at Strongside linebacker, in the trio of Hunter Echols, Eli’jah Winston and Malik McClain, and redshirt sophomore and two redshirt freshmen.

Redshirt freshman Solomon Tuliaupupu is a real wildcard in this linebacker group. He missed all of last season due to pre-season foot surgery, then went through just four spring practices before pulling out of spring for precautionary reasons.

The middle linebacker spots look to be in good hands moving forward as well, as true freshman Ralen Goforth turned in a very nice spring, and Maninoa Tufono joins the roster this fall. The young outside linebackers will be joined this fall by true freshman Tuasivi Nomura.

What we think: The move to flip Houston and Gaoteote between Mike and Will linebackers was met with a lot of trepidation among USC fans, but it’s going to work. Anything that allows Gaoteote to simply fly around and make plays without having to overthink things is a good idea. That top four of Houston, Iosefa, Gaoteote, and Mauga (plus Falaniko as well), could tell the story of the defense this year. That is a talented group who should be kept cleaner than they were last year by the defensive line while playing against the run, and should have the quickness and instincts to provide help against the quick passing game.

One position to watch this fall is that outside linebacker spot. It didn’t feel like the Trojans got enough out of it on a consistent basis this past spring. It might not be fair to ask that group to replace what Uchenna Nwosu provided there during his senior season, but somebody needs to step up and take hold of that position.

Tuliaupupu might be the most intriguing linebacker to watch during camp. He showed flashes of brilliance during those four spring practices and it stands to reason that if he is fully healthy at any point during this fall camp, he is a real threat to push for significant playing time this season, despite all the returning experience in the middle.

Cornerbacks

What we know: Olaijah Griffin, Greg Johnson, and Isaac Taylor-Stuart are the only outside cornerbacks with any amount of playing time. The starters will come from that group and the third one (likely either Johnson or Taylor-Stuart) will see plenty of time. Redshirt senior Dominic Davis provides depth at the spot and had a couple nice practices there during the spring.

Incoming freshmen Chris Steele, Adonis Otey, Max Williams, and Jayden Williams will likely be given every opportunity to show they deserve playing time throughout fall camp. Steele still need to be granted a NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility and Max Williams continues to work his way back from an ACL tear.

Chase Williams and Raymond Scott worked at nickelback this spring, with Williams the likely starter there.

Johnson is the veteran of the group, with just 14 appearances. Griffin has eight and Taylor-Stuart and Chase Williams just four each.

What we think: Like a number of other positions on the roster, the starters look solid and the depth has plenty of question marks. Steele and Max Williams are talented enough to play right away, but there are still questions about their availability. Otey has the size and athleticism to make a quick impact and is definitely someone to watch this spring.

This group should see an improvement in the overall statistics because of new position coach Greg Burns and improvement from the defensive line, and simply because the law of averages means the interception numbers should go up in 2019. But it won’t be surprising to see some early growing pains as guys are thrown into things early and there is no established veteran within the group to lean on. Asking three cornerbacks to get through an entire season without missing any time is a tough thing to do, which means true freshmen could be called upon. They’ll get a masters course during camp going up against this offense and these receivers. We’ll see how prepared that gets them for the season.

Safeties

What we know: The safety position is in a similar spot as cornerback. There are three returners with experience and a whole lot of freshmen and walk-ons.

Talanoa Hufanga will be ready to go for the fall after breaking his collarbone during spring practices. Likewise, Isaiah Pola-Mao will take the field for fall camp after being limited during the spring while recovering from a shoulder injury. C.J. Pollard missed all of spring practice while recovering from foot surgery, but will have a chance to grab a starting spot this fall. Pollard has 15 career appearances, while Hufanga has just eight and Pola-Mao two.

Behind those three, true freshman Briton Allen took a big step as an early enrollee, though he spent almost all of spring practices at cornerback. He’ll be joined this fall by fellow freshmen Dorian Hewett and Kaulana Makaula. Walk-ons Richard Hagestad, Jordan McMillan, who intercepted a pass against Notre Dame, and Brandon Perdue, a former quarterback, round out the safety roster.

What we think: Hufanga is a future star. The eight games last year and the short time he was available during spring practices have shown enough to pencil him in as a sure starter and potential All-Conference candidate. With Pollard out, Pola-Mao took some huge strides during the spring, both on and off the field in a leadership role. It wouldn’t be surprising to see those two paired as the starters, with Pollard serving as a valuable reserve and capable of potentially playing either safety position.

The biggest question for the position, and maybe the biggest question for the entire defense, is whether or not those top three guys can stay healthy for an entire season. If they can, this is a really strong spot for USC. But the top two haven’t shown they can yet, and the depth behind them is truly non-existent at this point. Allen getting as many reps as he did during the spring and being thrown into the fire is definitely a good thing, but a huge majority of those reps came at cornerback. We’ll see how he settles in at safety, but with the amount of action he’s already seen on the practice field, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him called upon throughout the season.

The Trojans also have the option of using either nickelback, Chase Williams or Raymond Scott, at safety if things come to that, so there are a few ways they can protect themselves from having to go to a true freshman walk-on as they did last year.



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Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.


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